A soft glow lent a dreamy charm on the Swiss village of Grindelwald at dawn, with the first hint of sun peeking over the stunning mountainscape of the Bernese Alps. As I made my way up through the winding roads behind the Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof Grindelwald — our base for the next two days — a train zipped high up into the mountains, passing through the silent valleys.
Backed by the north face of the mighty Eiger, the Wetterhorn and Mettenberg mountains on the one side, and meadows with grazing cows, distant lakes and dandelions in bloom on the other, the resort village of Grindelwald in the heart of Switzerland is as close as you can get to Instagram-perfect pastoral life.
The views of the imposing mountains alone are reasons enough to spend a few days at this Alpine town. The north face of Eiger is one of the most spectacular and difficult faces to climb in the world and was successfully conquered for the first time in 1938. The lethal beauty of the mountain has claimed climbers such as Toni Kurz and Stefano Longhi, and spawned movies and books ranging from North Face to The Eiger Sanction to White Spider.
But along with stunning vistas, Grindelwald also serves as a base for most tourists to explore the Jungfrau region and offers an abundance of the usual tourist attractions — retail therapy, quirky restaurants and amazing hiking trails. And as the largest ski resort in the Jungfrau region, many of its slopes feature excellent pistes — drawing a huge horde of skiers during winter.
Showcasing the diversity of that region and the unique travel system that connects all its major attractions is why Swiss Tourism had chosen Grindelwald as the base for us, a group of visiting journalists.
Life in Grindelwald is an obvious contrast to the hectic pace of Dubai: the trains are slow, the crisp Alpine air lifts your senses, there’s not a building in sight that’s higher than four storeys, and no, there are no groceries attached to each of them; the nearest semblance of a supermarket is about a kilometre away and shuts at 7.00pm, Swiss time!
But the sceptic in me asked: did the much-vaunted and much exposed vistas of Switzerland have anything new to reveal?
First Cliff Walk
Continuing our morning journey, a stroll through the town centre took us to a pretty-as-a-picture community dotted with a simple hillside chapel, painted wooden houses, souvenir shops, and small cafes.
We then stopped by at the First Cliff Walk for a quick photo on the hanging bridge, with views of the Eiger on the background. A short bus ride later, we were at the Glacier Canyon for a heart thumping adventure on a craggy gorge cut by the Grindelwald glacier. It was thrilling to walk on a wooden pathway cantilevered against the steep walls of mountains, with the rushing waters cascading freely from the mountains to the Lütschine river beneath us.
But whoever said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, obviously never climbed on to the Spiderweb overlooking the glacier gorges of Grindelwald. The most dreaded section of pathway is a 170m long walkable net platform that spans the canyon, floating seven metres over the roaring river. This is where bravehearts can flaunt their scrambling and crawling skills — but with my mountain adventures being mostly restricted to watching Vertical Limit about three times, I decided for the more mundane option of simply walking across the wire mesh.
That turned out to be not so mundane after all.
A sudden rush of wind, rays of reflecting light and the sheer drop of the canyon over my shoulder made me dizzy in a moment. Stepping back, I eventually managed to complete the entire stretch — mainly distracted by the stupendous views of cascading water amid mountain gorges — and instantly took a selfie basking in the adrenalin rush of a Tour de France champion: I had conquered my Eiger.
Elementary, Mr Holmes
Post lunch, a one-hour train ride from Grindelwald took us to Meiringen.
Otherwise yet another pretty Alpine town, Meiringen’s claim to fame is as the gateway to the Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes fell to his death after a confrontation with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. A funicular took us to the spot, by the side of the colossal falls, of the fatal encounter between Holmes and the criminal mastermind — a scene from The Final Problem that triggered a collective mourning around the world in 1893 at the death of fiction’s most famous detective. On the way back to town, I paused at the Sherlock Holmes Museum — a delight for fans of the sleuth. Think a replica of the famous room on 221B Baker Street, Holmes’ last letter to Dr Watson, et al. Indeed, the natural beauty of the Bernese Alps seems to have attracted a fair share of world’s top spies and detectives from the pages of fiction — but more on that later.
If spies are not enough, how about fantasy fiction?
The next morning, after a breakfast of muesli, eggs and appenzeller, a short train ride took us to Lauterbrunnen. “Marhaba,” said our tour guide with a smile, before briefing us on the day’s activities.
Yakoub Al Khatib was born in Syria but the deteriorating security situation saw his family immigrate to Switzerland about 10 years ago, and he now calls himself a proud resident of Interlaken.
Lauterbrunnen has one of Switzerland’s most impressive Alpine landscapes, so it’s little wonder that its 72 fountains, steep mountain cliffs and wild flower dotted valleys have for centuries inspired writers such as Goethe and Lord Byron. And if the sights and sounds remotely remind you of Lord of the Rings, you are at the right spot: “This village served as a background for JRR Tolkein’s Eleven city of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings trilogy,” said Al Khatib.
After Lauterbrunnen, we passed by a whirlwind of postcard-perfect places: the mountain village of Stechelberg; the magnificent waterfalls of Trummelbach; scenic gondola rides to the top of Birg via Murren. A thrill walk on top of Birg, at 2,677 metres, sounded more like cake-walk after my heart-thumping adventure at the Grindelwald gorges. Yet, the 200-metre steel and glass structure of the Thrill Walk hanging to the side of a rock massif, and the hair-raising drop below made the walk a spine-tingling adventure. This was followed by an assortment of walk, climb and crawl through a net tunnel: the payoff for the vertigo-inducing half-an-hour walk was the unforgettable views of the majestic trio of Swiss Alps — Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. With aching legs and short on breath, I stopped by at a cafe on the observation deck, warming up over a cup of hot chocolate for the next adventure awaiting us at Schilthorn.
The name’s Bond
That involved retracing the footsteps of James Bond and his most sought-after Spectre mastermind, Ernst Blofeld, as seen in the movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A treat for lovers of Ian Fleming’s spymaster, the entire journey to the top of the 2,970-metre high Schilthorn evokes Bond nostalgia, ski chases and that spectacular avalanche triggered by Blofeld. Bond’s signature theme music plays on the cable car ride up to the summit and life-size cutouts of George Lazenby, whose maiden appearance as 007 came in the 1969 flick, adorns the viewing deck. A Bond museum on top of the mountain features an interactive exhibition with a helicopter simulator and the behind-the-scenes actions on the filming on Schilthorn. Afterwards we headed straight to iconic Piz Gloria restaurant, which in the movie served as Blofeld’s mountaintop allergy clinic. The revolving restaurant has been recently renovated but still evokes the charm of 1960s. Rotating a full 360 degrees around its own axis, the restaurant glides past more than 200 mountain peaks visible on a clear day. A slice of pure bliss, as I dug into a salmon burger with ‘007’ stamped on it.
But the best was yet to be: the best part of Schilthorn’s magic for me lied in getting down to the valley. After cable car rides from Schilthorn to Birg and then to Murren, we took a leisurely walk around the car-free village, before boarding a tiny train to Grütschalp, followed by a gondola ride to Lauterbrunnen. As we climbed down the steep slopes in the cable car, the landscape suddenly changed from snow-capped mountains to lush valleys with breathtaking mist engulfing it all around.
An hourlong train ride brought us back to Grindelwald, and after a day of arduous adventures, we spent the evening in soaking up its rural charm.
Reflecting over a fondue feast back at the hotel, with the chatter of my new friends and the Alpine memories fresh, I was beset with an overwhelming sense of Heimat, as the Swiss say: a feeling of being at home. It was time to toss out my misplaced scepticism: no matter how many times you visit Switzerland, there will always be a new place to call home.
HOW TO GET THERE
• Emirates, Swiss Air and Etihad operate regular flights to Zurich and Geneva.
• Regular trains connect Grindelwald with Zurich and Geneva. It takes around two hours to reach Grindelwald from Zurich, via Interlaken, and around four hours from Geneva.
• With a Swiss Travel Pass, an all-in-one ticket to travel by rail, road and boats throughout Switzerland, you can hop on any train or bus and access most of the attractions, including the mountain excursions at Schilthorn, free of charge. With this pass you can also travel on scenic trains such as the Glacier Express, Bernina Express, and GoldenPass Line. Various travel agents in the UAE are authorised to issue Swiss Travel Pass. Go to myswitzerland.com/rail
5 THINGS TO DO WHILE YOU’RE IN GRINDELWALD
1. Hiking around Grindelwald takes you through some of the most scenic trails in Switzerland with perfectly signposted routes.
2. Hop on a cog wheel train at Grindelwald to travel to Jungfraujoch, Top of Europe. This is home to Europe’s highest railway station.
3. Visit a cheesemaker in town to sample a few local varieties and learn about Alpine cheesemaking in a scenic spot.
4. Stop at one of the souvenir shops near the town centre to take home a hand crafted wooden cow.
5. Enjoy fine Alpine cuisine at the elegant Schmitte restaurant at Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof Grindelwald.